Top Wisconsin official: Spring election faces many problems

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MADISON — Wisconsin could face a litany of problems if it holds its spring election amid the coronavirus crisis, including a possible disruption in mail service interfering with absentee voting, a lack of polling sites and the risk of exposing elderly poll workers and voters to the disease, the state's chief elections officer said Wednesday.

The election is scheduled for April 7. It features the state's presidential primary, a state Supreme Court race, a referendum on a state constitutional amendment that would establish rights for crime victims and various local elections.

Social distancing mandates have raised questions about whether Wisconsin should postpone its election, as Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio have done. Three states went ahead with their primaries on Tuesday, and some problems popped up, including in Chicago, where officials had to scramble to replace about 50 area polling sites that decided to cancel at the last minute.

But Gov. Tony Evers has insisted the election go on as scheduled, noting that postponing it could leave countless local offices vacant. He has encouraged people to vote by absentee ballot. His fellow Democrats filed a federal lawsuit late Wednesday to demanding a judge relax deadlines and other requirements for absentee voting to make the process easier.

Still, pressure mounted during the day to push the election off.

“I no longer believe that we are able to fairly and properly administer this election without a delay,” Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Ann Jacobs said during an emergency meeting Wednesday evening. “I believe we're putting people at risk.”

Local clerks face a host of challenges if the election goes on as scheduled, elections commission Administrator Meagan Wolfe wrote in a memo Wednesday.

Wolfe opened her analysis by pointing out that postponement would take a court order, an order from the governor or an act of the Legislature. The state Senate's majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, has said that's not going to happen.

Wolfe went on to outline a host of possible problems.

A potential U.S. Postal Service shutdown could delay delivery and return of absentee ballots and therefore delay counting on election night. Wolfe said that local clerks might have to ask post offices to hold ballots and pick them up themselves.

As of Tuesday, Wisconsin voters had cast about 173,775 absentee ballots for the election, according to the commission. That's more absentee ballots cast than were requested in each of the previous three spring elections dating back to 2017, and there's still three weeks to submit them.

A significant increase in absentee ballots also could delay counting on election night, she wrote, noting that the deadline for returning them to local clerks is 8 p.m. on election night. Clerks throughout the state estimate that they're short 600,000 absentee ballot envelopes, she added.

Concerns are rising that Evers' order closing schools and banning visitors to nursing homes could reduce the number of physical polling places in such structures, Wolfe said. Clerks should consider relocating polling sites to places like fairgrounds, private gyms, park pavilions or government buildings with meeting space, she said.

More than half of Wisconsin poll workers are over age 60, making them especially vulnerable to the virus, Wolfe went on. Commission staffers have directed clerks to build lists of replacements such as high school or college students in case workers fall ill or don't show up. Clerks should be ready to deputize people and give them crash training courses in election administration, Wolfe wrote.

Clerks also have complained to the commission about the lack of hand sanitizer and other cleaning products, but Wolfe said there simply isn't any available.

Commissioners also should think about whether to deliver absentee ballots to people who are quarantined in their homes, Wolfe wrote.

State law already allows agents acting on behalf of hospitalized voters to pick up absentee ballots from a clerk, deliver them to the voter and then return the ballot to the clerk. The commission could decide to interpret state law as including people quarantined at home due to the virus as hospitalized voters. But that would create another raft of problems because agents would have to interact with infected voters and clerks.

Commissioners squabbled for hours over what to do during an emergency meeting Wednesday evening.

“I no longer believe that we are able to fairly and properly administer this election without a delay,” Commissioner Ann Jacobs said. “I believe we're putting people at risk.”

But other commissioners said it's up to Evers and the Legislature to change election protocols.

The panel did adopt a motion that calls for spending $200,000 on clerks' supplies — Wolfe told the panel that she had found an envelope vendor since she penned the memo — and directing all clerks to accommodate in-person early voting and registrations. Jacobs proposed allowing quarantined voters' agents to handle ballots on their behalf but withdrew it after other commissioners said the risk isn't clear.

Evers' spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, reiterated Wednesday that the election will go on and people should vote absentee. Fitzgerald's spokesman, Alec Zimmerman, didn't immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The state Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to relax Wisconsin's absentee voting requirements. The party and committee said social distancing has limited residents' ability to comply with the requirements.

The filing calls for extending online and mail voter registration through April 3. Starting Thursday voters will no longer have either option and will have to register at clerks' offices or at the polls.

Election officials should drop requirements that voters include photo identification with absentee ballots and proof-of-residency documents, the lawsuit contends. Officials also should give voters until Election Day to postmark their ballots, and clerks should be able to receive them for 10 days following the election, the lawsuit argues.

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